A close-knit family is at the heart of millions of happy homes across the Gulf. Yet, cinema from the region has made very little exploration of this invaluable bonding force of society. So when Emirati filmmaker Saeed Salmeen al-Murry’s Going to Heaven – about a boy’s quest to find his beloved grandmother – was screened twice over the weekend, the Doha audience was understandably pleased.
“Nobody has tackled family issues and values in the cinema of the Gulf,” al-Murry tells Community, moments after a large throng leave the Museum of Islamic Art auditorium, steeped in deep discussions, “Usually, filmmakers here make genre films such as comedy or horror, but not films on family and social aspect of life in the Gulf. I feel it’s very important to discuss and examine the simplicity of life and the important things of life, social issues, family ties and bonding, through cinema.”
Going to Heaven (Sayer al Janah in Arabic) was screened as part of Doha Film Institute’s (DFI) Hekayat Khaleejiya series, which is dedicated to showcasing cinematic voices from the Gulf region and deconstructing the filmmakers’ idea and creative vision by throwing open a discussion after the screenings. The 90-minute road trip drama won the Muhr Emirati Award for Best Feature Film at the Dubai International Film Festival last year and was recently released in theatres across the UAE.
By elevating the pursuit of a grandmother’s affection to the metaphor of heading to heaven, al-Murry wants to highlight the core Gulf Arab family dynamic related to the deep ties between young and older members of the family. “It bothers me that today most of us are cut off from our families and our elders. Children of this generation don’t know much about their roots. Mostly, what matters to them are things related to technology and whatever is happening in front of them, right now. But it’s more important for us to remind ourselves where we come from, what our past is, and what our traditions are,” al-Murry says.
In Going to Heaven, young Sultan sets off on an extraordinary journey, from Abu Dhabi to Fujairah, in search of his grandmother. The tender voice of his grandmother, recorded in a cassette, promises Sultan of the warmth of her love and therefore an escape from the bitterness of life at home. Joining him in this momentous adventure is his less-emotional, more-practical friend Saud. Eventually, Sultan realises that finding granny is tough but chances upon a solution nevertheless.
“Sultan’s courage to pursue his quest represents the spirit of the Emirati people, and the people of the Gulf,” al-Murry says, “Sultan is quite literally the heart of the film because life is really about looking for who you really are. In the end, when he realises that finding his grandmother is very difficult and meets an elderly lady and accepts her as his grandmother, the point really is about understanding how important the grandmother or the past is to us.”
That said, the grandmother isn’t as much a literal mother figure as she is an ultimate representational symbol of traditional, human bonding between family members, al-Murry points out. “Going to Heaven is not just about your grandmother, but about making people aware of the disconnection that we are all living through. I don’t like to see this lack of connection and interaction in our families and in our society that we see today,” al-Murry says, reiterating his point, “Connection with technology is assuming more importance today than connections with our close ones. That’s why I had to tell this story.”
Al-Murry, who has also written the script, has shot the film entirely in the UAE, offering audience to see Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Fujairah and Dubai on the big screen, devoid of the usual visual clichés. The film offers “a rare look at the everyday life of ordinary Emiratis, and a touching tribute to grandmothers,” as Empire Arabia pointed out in its review of the film, “Told from the vantage point of a young boy, it offers a new perspective on the Emirati story.”
In fact, the two first-time Emirati actors who star in this film are brothers in real life – Ahmed al-Zaabi (14) and Jumaa al-Zaabi (12). Al-Murry says, “It was a pure coincidence that I found them in my neighbourhood. First, Ahmed, the elder of the two, agreed to act in the film. The younger one, Jumaa, initially refused, but I managed to convince him. Of course, it was hard for them as they had no prior acting experience at all.”
Al-Murry graduated from the New York Film Academy in Abu Dhabi, and has won awards for the short film Huboob (2006) at the Emirates Film Competition (EFC) and the Dubai International Film Festival. He continued this success with the short Al Ghobna (2007), which won award at the EFC and was screened at Dubai. His short film Bint Mariam (2008) won more than 13 awards internationally.
His first feature film Sun Dress (2010) was screened at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and won the Special Jury Award in the Muscat International Film Festival. While Sun Dress addressed local prejudices against those with disabilities, Going to Heaven expands the scope to bring out a universal tale about family without succumbing to the tropes of formula drama.
“Everybody can relate to this film because it has a universal emotion and it also explores a universal bond. While my motive was to draw light to the strong family ties in Gulf families, it’s also a lesson and a value for people across the world to reflect upon,” al-Murry says, “As for making the film itself, simplicity was key. I didn’t want anything to take away from the main story.”
Going to Heaven has successfully toured the international film festival circuit, notching words of praise and appreciation along the way. “It has travelled to around 25 international film festivals; from South Korea to the UK,” al-Murry says, beaming, “I’m very happy with the fabulous feedback this film has brought me from all over the world. What is most heartening and something I truly hope for is to have the film released all over the world in theatres, and not just be limited to film festival screenings.”
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